What makes a good school?

Over the last month or so, I’ve enumerated some of the assumptions that I think underlie most mainstream discussions of education. In the process, a lot of my beliefs have probably become pretty clear, but I thought it would be a good idea to make explicit at least one of the assumptions that underlies almost all of my thinking about education. I made my first major decision about my education when I was eight years old and chose to go back to Montessori from a traditional school. (More precisely, my parents gave me an option, I told them what I wanted, and they heeded my opinion). Granted, that wasn’t a particularly well-reasoned decision. I’m pretty sure I thought about it for as long as it took my brain to tell my vocal tract to produce the word “YES!” But since then, I’ve never really stopped thinking about my own education and about what makes a good education and a good school.

My thinking about education has changed a lot over the years, and has changed as I’ve moved through different stages of development. When I was eight, I thought Montessori was the most wonderful thing ever invented, and everything else was awful. When I was a teenager, I thought adults should pretty much never tell kids what to do, and when I was in college (at a school with intense academics and fairly traditional course requirements), I started thinking that maybe requiring a certain amount of depth and breadth wasn’t that bad and that grades weren’t the end of the world, at least if you chose to take on the structure. For a while, I was really into unschooling. At another point, I was really into Waldorf. In the last year or so, I’ve come back around to thinking that Montessori is pretty much the best thing ever invented.

In the last year, I’ve also started wondering whether all those changes mean that I just get excited about the latest educational trend to come my way (well, progressive educational trend — I’ve been pretty consistent about what I don’t like). But gradually, I’ve realized that I actually do have a pretty consistent metric for judging schools, and my opinions of schools and of pedagogies goes up and down as I understand better how they fall on that metric. So how do I judge schools? I judge them by how well they respect children, not as adults, but as human beings.

That takes some explaining. Unfortunately, ‘respect’ is a word that gets misused in a few totally contradictory ways. When talking about kids, respect is usually just a euphemism for ‘obedient.’ Kids are ‘disrespectful’ when they don’t do what they’re told. On the other hand, when it comes to people’s strongly held beliefs, it is ‘disrespectful’ to question or disagree with them, even when their beliefs are completely irrational or downright destructive. I don’t mean either of those things. What I mean by ‘respect’ is seeing people for who they are: as individuals with hopes, fears, desires, opinions and beliefs, whose right to determine their own lives should be infringed on only when necessary.

That “not as adults, but as humans beings” part also needs some explaining. Kids are not adults. They don’t have as much life experience. They don’t have as much perspective. They need more protection, more guidance, and more limits than adults, and that’s fine. I worry a lot about kids whose families refuse to set reasonable standards for behavior. Or whose families refuse to push them to try new things, take on challenges, and follow through on commitments. Those things are hard to do, and nearly all of us need some prodding to get there, and I don’t think we do kids any good by refusing to push them. But that doesn’t make kids blank canvases without wills or dreams of their own, and just because some of those dreams may be childish doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be cherished and nourished.

Adults do have power over children. That’s just a fact of life. Up to a certain age, kids are dependent on their families for food, shelter, clothing and pretty much everything else (and, for better or worse, that age is higher in Western cultures than strictly necessary for mental and physical development). A combination of legal and social forces put kids at the mercy of their schools when they aren’t under the control of their parents, and we expect kids to be “supervised” more or less all the time. However, just because someone has power doesn’t mean they should use it any way they please. We all recognize tyranny as unethical, but people rarely question whether adults have the right to use their power over children in more or less any way they please, at least as long as it’s “for the child’s own good.”

So what does that have to do with schools? I’ve realized I judge schools as “good” if they have built into their very structure an understanding of when to use their power over children. If adults are constantly asking, “What activity of the child’s will I be stopping if I interrupt now,” that’s a good school. If adults are constantly asking, “Do I need to make the child do this, or can I let them discover it on their own,” that’s a good school. If adults are constantly asking. “Am I replacing the child’s desires with my own, and do I really need to” that’s a good school. If adults are constantly asking, “Would I want to be a child in this place,” that’s a good school.The more a school makes that level of care possible and probable, the better.

(By the way, I didn’t realize until I came back around to it as an adult how many of these ideas come from Montessori and were internalized early on in my Montessori education. The idea that children have a right not to be interrupted when their hard at work literally comes straight from Dr. Montessori’s own writing (unfortunately, I can’t find the reference), and the other ideas are all there implicitly or explicitly. It’s not that surprising that my standards for a good school come straight from Montessori. I was surrounded by her ideas practically before I could talk.)

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